One New Yorker Asks, What Is Love?

January 28, 2010 by  
Filed under Featured

After seven years of talking about love with people on the street, Karen Porter Sorensen learned a few things that helped her when family members were ill.

By Marie Suszynski
Medically reviewed by Pat F. Bass III, MD, MPH

what is love

Some researchers say that love isn’t just an emotion. It’s a need — like thirst or hunger — and that romantic love can create such intense cravings that it feels like a drug.

Karen Porter Sorensen, the Brooklyn, N.Y., author of love (luv) n. who asked perfect strangers for their thoughts on love in New York City, saw first-hand that people do, in fact, have a yearning for love and connection with others.

She also learned that one of the most important gifts we can give someone — especially someone who’s going through a health crisis — is love.

It’s easy to get swept away by love when you’re in a new romantic relationship. The real question is: How do you show love to a family member or a friend when you’re filled with grief over their illness? Sorensen has some ideas.

What Love Research Revealed

For seven years, Sorensen ran a “love research booth” in New York City and offered people walking by a single rose in return for answering five questions about love, such as, “What is love?,” “Who taught you love?,” and “Has your love ever been tested?”

The hundreds of responses she got were across the board. An art educator told Sorenson that love is making a new universe with other people. A man whose partner was dying said that to love is to understand what the other person needs and find ways to make it happen.

Why did she embark on this project? In part because Sorensen’s brother was diagnosed with a mental illness and he couldn’t express his emotions. Suddenly her brother didn’t believe in love anymore. “In some ways [the book] was a testament to him,” she says.

Sorensen was also new to New York City and wanted to connect to the city in an interesting way. And she was engaged and wanted to explore what love really was.

Loving Someone Who is Ill

Her research also helped her learn how to love family members when they were going through a health crisis. Not only was her brother struggling with a mental illness, but her mother fought breast cancer and survived, and her grandmother also became ill and died a week before Sorensen finished her book. Here’s what her research taught her about coping:

  • If nothing else, just listen. One of the greatest things you can do when someone you love is sick is to be available to her and listen to what she has to say without judgment and without having expectations of what you want her to say, Sorensen says.Being with a loved one living who is ill is uncomfortable, but it’s important to put your own feelings of discomfort aside and focus on her. “If you can, make space available for people to share whatever they want to share,” she says.
  • Be present, even when it’s painful. “It’s easy to check out and get caught up in your own grief,” Sorensen says. But it’s important to enjoy the moments you have left with someone who’s seriously ill. She and her family played Hungarian music for her grandmother during the last days of her life, which was something her grandmother loved when she was younger. And everyone in her family decided to dance for her grandmother, even though their sadness didn’t make them feel like dancing. “Find moments of joy even in the most difficult situations,” Sorensen advises.
  • Wear bright colors. When Sorensen did her love research on the streets of New York City, she always wore a red suit and red hat. Simply bringing color to somebody is powerful, she says. She used the same philosophy when she visited her grandmother when she was sick. When she walked into the room wearing bright colors, she noticed her grandmother light up.
  • When the person who is ill wants to be alone, try helping their family members. People who are sick sometimes don’t want others to see them vulnerable and in pain. Sorensen has a friend who volunteers to sit with people who have life-threatening illnesses to give them company. But she noticed that one of the men she visited, who had always been friendly and usually welcomed her, started sending her away. Instead of leaving, she sat next to his daughter in the next room instead and offered her a listening ear.

Looking for more love in your life? Sorensen put together 100 ways to do it, including sending a love letter to a stranger (which could be as simple as jotting a note of thanks to someone who showed you kindness), keeping a journal of where you see love, reading famous love letters, smiling at strangers, and spending the day telling the people who are important to you that you love them.

  • Winsor Pilates

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